The Dark Side of Ideology

Capturing SA 20 years after the revolution
Lucinda Jolly | Cape Times, 28 October 2013

The Pop Goes The Revolution exhibition begins and ends with a brick wall. It’s visible to passing traffic but blocks out the pretty Victorian façade of The New Church Gallery. And no, owner Piet Viljoen doesn’t need permission from the heritage council, because it’s not an architectural structure. It’s a sculpture by Cameron Platter. On a blood red ground, the words in black and yellow type read, “Please Don’t Kill Us”.  It references the wording that has replaced “men at work” for the KwaZulu-Natal roadworkers who are being robbed and run over and it sets the trend for what lies inside the house. On the way out, the flip side of the wall sculpture reads “Please Please Kill Us”, coming full circle.

Cross the threshold and, although you may not be aware of it, you cannot help but tread the curators name Kirsty Cockerill and the exhibition’s title underfoot. She’s a plucky bird this Cockerill. She believes in fair play and is proud of being willing to take as good as she gives. So, tramp away. Close to the front door is Georgina Gratix’s ironic warning about art being very serious. Works deal with identity, often inverted roles, materialism and corruption, channelled through the mechanisms of humour, irony, puns, mockery and jibes.

Pop art first emerged in Britain and then America in the 1950s. Using images, sometimes decontextualised, from popular culture it presented a challenge to the lofty ideals of fine art traditions. It came later to South Africa. Few artists in the exhibition are strictly pop artists. Rather, the works selected “question our social landscape”.

As with pop art and this show, it’s not that the work is similar, but that the attitudes are. However, as Cockerill explains, this isn’t your regular pop art. It’s not about baked bean cans, “it’s about selling something, an ideology or product”. And this exhibition sells the unsellable –the dark side of ideology, broken dreams and delusion that no one wants to buy. Cockerill wants viewers “to laugh” but at the same time “wants them to be punched in the gut”.

Her curation is creative and intelligent with an eye for getting pieces to engage with each other. Each room is carefully considered. Sometimes it’s a profound connection, at others it’s as slender as the colour range in Paul du Toit’s benign art, which finds itself in the mocking company of Avant Car Guard. The feel of this show lies somewhere between the bright, hard beauty of Stuart Bird’s Over The Rainbow and a mixed media piece by Johannes Phokela, Original Sin – Fall of the Damned as Damaged. Over The Rainbow is a cruelly beautiful reflecting rainbow made from shards of glass. It’s death by rainbow. In contrast, Phokela’ s fiftysomething-years-old piece is a glistening fall of soft, pink naked condemned flesh. It’s a rip-off of Rubens’s Original Sin which Phokela has defaced with a liberal white spill of ejaculatory paint falling from the narrowest palest pink halo.

Brett Murray gives us a revolutionary type quote mockingly attributed to Oprah Winfrey, and Michael MacGarry a melting AK47 moment. Pop Goes the Revolution catches the volatile mix of a South Africa 20 years after the revolution. It suggests that though we may be over the rainbow, torn and bleeding, we are nowhere near the evolution needed to fulfil the promises made. The works mock our naivety, dreams and expectations. They may be bonbon bright and shiny on the outside but that’s just surface show. It’s as tragic as Avant Car Guard’s rainbow + sad + life from Dumb Colour Guide to Stuff Series or the psychopathic acquisitiveness of Cell Phone with the words “if you die can we have your cell phone” in crude white lettering on a pretty tropical background of sand, sea and horses. So we laugh knowingly because we are so done with crying – beating our chests, tearing our clothes and hair and piling ashes on our heads. They may not be strictly pop artists but the artists are rather like the ancient mariner compelled to repeat through visual creations the stinking corpse of a conscience-shaped albatross with humour as the only protection against quivering rage and the deadweight of despair and impotence.

Politics may be the starting point for many of the works. But they don’t stay with the strictly political. Pop Goes The Revolution unpacks the dark politics of the human condition through a profound understanding of ignorance, self-deception, stupidity and corruption. And it lights the way around the brick wall with humour. A must see.